Rethinking Productivity During the Literacy Block


During demonstration writing lessons in classrooms, I will sometimes start by sharing that of the multiple books I’ve written, none of them were turned in on time to the publisher. I am not sure how the teachers feel about me modeling tardiness, but the students are always surprised. Related, I have commented during demonstration reading lessons that I’ve only met my yearly reading goal twice since 2013.

Bringing these real literacy experiences into classrooms lightens the anxiety load when students themselves are eventually expected to read or write. They seem less worried about getting an essay started or a book completed. They become more “in the moment”. I have noticed the same holds true with my own children; for example, once they know there isn’t a quiz associated with a book, they usually read with abandon.

No Deadlines in 2nd Grade

This broader topic of productivity came up while reading the first half of Engaging Literate Minds: Developing Children’s Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Lives, K-3 (Stenhouse, 2020). In “Chapter 4: A Slice of Classroom Life”, a group of 2nd and 3rd graders listened to their classmate Paul read aloud a book he wrote and drew, Sweekey.

Paul’s classroom identity as mentor author came from a deep dive into authentic texts followed by many weeks of creating his original book.

Paul worked on Sweekey on and off for seven weeks, returning to it again over twelve weeks later. Anyone familiar with Mo Willem’s Pigeon books can see how Paul has drawn on Mo as a mentor. The book was an ambitious project, with a great deal of imaginative detail. It would not have been produced in a single session or to a deadline (p. 52).

The whole group conversation around Paul’s book took up significant class time as well. Next is a snippet of one of these discussions, specifically around the writing moves Paul made in his story (p. 50; all names besides Merry are students).

Thomas: I noticed at the end of some of his pages he used a repeating line, “I’ll tell you more.”

Elle: Why did you do that?

Gabe: [interjects] Paul kept the reader wanting to know more. I liked that.

Sarah: He wanted to keep you reading.

Merry: Did it work?

Thomas: Yeah, that’s what Elaine (a classmate) does too, remember?

Gabe: His illustrations are funny, too, the way he drew them.

Paul: That’s what Mo Willems does.

Also worth noting is what the authors did not document and share in Engaging Literate Minds. From what I recall, the following classroom practices were absent:

  • Book quizzes

  • Grades or scores

  • Require minutes of reading per day

  • Scripted curriculum and assigned texts

  • Standards-driven lessons or test prep

In other words, many of the elements one might traditionally associate with a productive classroom were not present in these classrooms.

Outcomes and Processes

What holds a teacher back from adopting more authentic and engaging literacy practices such as the one briefly described here?

It might be fear of the unknown, especially in the outcomes and the processes in order for these types of experiences to occur. Graciously, the authors outlined how the comments that students made during their discussions (a process) led to results that revealed students’ understandings and literate skills (outcomes).

For example, when it was publicly noted that Paul used a repeating line (“I will tell you more”) to keep the reader wanting more, this comment informed the teacher, Merry, that students understood the connection between what an author does intentionally to maintain the reader’s attention.

In Engaging Literate Minds, the teachers made choices about what would and would not be a part of their classrooms.

  • Less testing and more authentic assessment

  • Less searching for or designing perfect lessons and more selecting excellent literature that would springboard deep discussions and writing projects

  • Less stuff, such as worksheets and workbooks, and more time for actual reading, writing, and talking about literature and the associated big ideas

  • Less learning targets and more student-centered questions

All classrooms are productive. What seems to be the difference between compliant and engaged classrooms is what the students are producing and how they are producing it. And what is it that we truly want: compliance and an artifical sense of control, or engagement that helps students to experience real autonomy in their lives?

Thank you for your readership. Thursday’s article will be for subscribers only. 90% of proceeds from new subscriptions for the months of June and July will be donated to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. (Note: During the Engaging Literate Minds book study starting June 15, subscriptions will be paused; no new articles for five weeks.)